Richard Roundtree, who has died aged 81, was a model turned actor who elevated the ability to look good in leather to an art form. Roundtree, known as the first black action hero, received a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of private investigator John Shaft Gordon ParksIn the crime-action blaxploitation thriller Shaft (1971), he confidently dodges traffic in Times Square, dressed in a smart brown leather coat and with his collar turned up.
Marketed with the slogan “Shaft is his name, Shaft is his game,” Shaft was among the first films to feature an African-American character in an action role. Roundtree’s Shaft was a cool man with a fancy apartment, lots of beautiful women and a pearl-handled revolver in his fridge who is hired by a Harlem crime boss after the gangster’s daughter is kidnapped by the Mafia.
Shaft proved to be a hit with American audiences of all stripes. It also enjoyed great popularity in Britain, where the Daily Telegraph reported in 1972 that it had broken house records at the Ritz in Leicester Square, adding: “And its distribution has expanded to all sorts of places from Brighton to Blackpool.”
Meanwhile, Shaft’s theme won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1972, making its composer Isaac Hayes the first African-American to win an Oscar in a non-acting category.
The concept was imitated by other blaxploitation filmmakers and typically featured an aloof black hero, white villains, sex with black and white women, an emphasis on action and guns, and the problems of low-income African Americans. “To my knowledge, there are very few blacks who have been as idolized as John Shaft,” Roundtree told the New York Times in 1972. “Kids run around in black leather jackets and brag.”
He then appeared in two sequels, beginning with Shaft’s Big Score (1972). This time his character no longer operated from shabby premises, but rather from a flashy love nest. “While Shaft is great in bed, wonderful with his fists, not to mention his feet, and not too bad with his brain, he is hopeless with a gun,” noted Patrick Gibbs in the Daily Telegraph.
Shaft in Africa (1973), in which Roundtree’s character infiltrates an East African slave ring and lures young Africans to Europe with the promise of non-existent lucrative jobs, was among the first American films shot in Ethiopia. During his time there, the actor had an audience with Emperor Haile Selassie and kept his cool when the Emperor’s cheetah strolled by.
The success of the Shaft trilogy led to his appearance in the short-lived CBS television series Shaft (1973–74), although the plot was modified for television and the star described it as “a lifeless, watered-down version of the films”. Many years later, the concept was revived in two more films, both titled Shaft and released in theaters in 2000 and 2019 respectively, with Samuel L. Jackson as his character’s nephew and Roundtree in cameo roles.
Elsewhere he played motorcycle daredevil Miles Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner in the disaster film Earthquake (1974); appeared opposite Peter O’Toole in Man Friday (1975), an amusing if uneven reworking of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in which the roles of Friday and Crusoe are reversed; he was Army Sergeant Augustus Henderson in the box office flop Inchon (1981), a Korean War epic starring Laurence Olivier and Jacqueline Bisset; and took on the role of private detective Diehl Swift in the 1930s comedy City Heat (1984) with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds.
Roundtree recalled how Shaft impacted the lives of countless black Americans, something they always shared with him. As a result, he was pigeonholed for many years and was forced to establish another side to his acting: in the Fox TV sitcom “Roc” (1991), when he appeared in one of television’s first interracial gay couples, the married. However, he remembered his father visiting him in Los Angeles and listening to his complaints. “Son, let me tell you something,” the older man said. “Many people leave this earth without anything being known. Keep your mouth shut.”
Richard Arnold Roundtree was born on July 9, 1942, in New Rochelle, New York, to John Roundtree, a garbage collector, caterer, and Pentecostal elder, and his wife Kathryn (née Watkins), a housekeeper to a white family.
He played American football at the then predominantly Jewish New Rochelle High School, where he was voted the most popular, best dressed and best looking senior. After receiving an athletics scholarship to Southern Illinois University, he dropped out in 1963, saying he could no longer cope with the blatant racism.
Back in New York, he became a salesman at Barney’s department store and began modeling the clothes he sold. He was hired by Mr. Carter, the African-American male etiquette and modeling school opened by Ophelia DeVore and her husband, Harold Carter. Meanwhile, Eunice Johnson of Ebony magazine hired him to model at the Ebony Fashion Fair, where he appeared in 79 cities in 90 days. He soon appeared in advertisements for Duke hair grease and Salem cigarettes.
Roundtree joined the Negro Ensemble Company in New York in 1967 and played boxing legend Jack Johnson in the production of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope. Three years later he made his film debut in the Candid Camera-style semi-pornographic film “What Do You Say to a Naked Lady?” (1970), his only film experience before Shaft. In 1972 he received a Golden Globe as most promising newcomer.
His other films didn’t have the same impact as Shaft. As an aspiring firefighter in Firehouse (1972), he faced racism in a small-town fire department; in the heist film Diamonds (1975), he helped Robert Shaw’s British aristocrat break into a supposedly impregnable safe in Tel Aviv; and in the Tarzan parody George of the Jungle (1997), he was the friendly Kwame who accompanied Leslie Mann’s Ursula on her visit to Africa.
On television he played the sophisticated slave Sam Bennett in Roots (1977), the brilliant Dr. Daniel Reubens in Generations (1989-91) and the amoral private detective Mr Shaw in Desperate Housewives (2004-05).
Roundtree married Mary Jane Grant in 1963. The couple dissolved and in 1980 he married Karen Ciernia. This was also dissolved and he leaves behind two children from his first marriage and three children from his second marriage. In 1993, he was diagnosed with a rare form of male breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy.
He recalled his eldest daughter’s most embarrassing moment in high school when another student said he had seen her father naked in a movie. As he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “You don’t think about things like that when you’re young.”
Richard Roundtree, born July 9, 1942, died October 24, 2023